Wolf Hall — Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s revisionist retelling of the Tudor saga through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, is new in trade paperback this week from Picador. When the book won the Man Booker Prize last year, chairman James Naughtie credited its success to the “bigness of the book . . . [its] boldness [and] scene setting.” In The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens noted that the book put Mantel “in the very first rank of historical novelists.” In The New York Review of Books, Stephen Greenblatt pointed out that this “is a novel too in which nothing is wasted, and nothing completely disappears.” Here’s what Biblioklept had to say:

I’m coming to the end of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant treatment of the Tudor saga,Wolf Hall. Sign of a great book: when it’s finished, I will miss her characters, particularly her hero Thomas Cromwell, presented here as a self-made harbinger of the Renaissance, a complicated protagonist who was loyal to his benefactor Cardinal Wolsey even though he despised the abuses of the Church. Mantel’s Cromwell reminds us that the adjective “Machiavellian” need not be a pejorative, applied only to evil Iago or crooked Richard III. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall presages a more egalitarian–modern–extension of power. Cromwell here is not simply pragmatic (although he is pragmatic), he also has a purpose: he sees the coming changes of Europe, the rise of the mercantile class signaling economic power over monarchial authority. Yet he’s loyal to Henry VIII, and even the scheming Boleyns. “Arrange your face” is one of the book’s constant mantras; another is “Choose your prince.” Mantel’s Cromwell is intelligent and admirable; the sorrows of the loss of his wife and daughter tinge his life but do not dominate it; he can be cruel when the situation merits it but would rather not be. I doubt that many people wanted yet another telling of the Tudor drama–but aren’t we always looking for a great book? Wolf Hall demonstrates that it’s not the subject that matters but the quality of the writing. Highly recommended.

Presenting all these reviews is simply a way of pointing out that if you know anything about contemporary lit, you probably already know that there’s a strong critical consensus that the book is excellent. Which it is. And if you like historical fiction, particularly of the English-monarchy variety, it’s likely you’ve already read it (and if not, why not? Jeez). However, I think it’s important–particularly now, with the current brouhaha over what literary fiction is and how female writers are treated by critics–to point out that what makes Mantel’s novel so excellent–and distinctly literary–is the writing: the narrative craft, the intensity of characterization, the vitality of prose. There’s nothing gimmicky about Wolf Hall even though its hero Cromwell has been traditionally reviled. Furthermore, Mantel resists fetishizing her set pieces, unlike so many writers of historical fiction, who feel the need to bombard their readers with extraneous details, as if the author’s painstaking research were a weapon rather than a tool.

My original review of Wolf Hall overlapped with a reading of James Wood’s essay on Thomas More from his collection The Broken Estate (also, incidentally, available in paperback from Picador). More is the major villain of Wolf Hall, and Wood savages him in “Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season.” It was strange then (not too strange, though) to see Mantel and Wood intersect again a few months later, in Wood’s New Yorker review of David Mitchell’s historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Here’s Wood–

Meanwhile, the historical novel, typically the province of genre gardeners and conservative populists, has become an unlikely laboratory for serious writers, some of them distinctly untraditional in emphasis and concern. (I am thinking not just of Mitchell but of Thomas Pynchon, Susan Sontag, Steven Millhauser, A. S. Byatt, Peter Carey.) What such novelists are looking for in those oldfangled laboratories is sometimes mysterious to me; and how these daring writers differ from a very gifted but frankly traditional and more commercial historical novelist like Hilary Mantel is an anxiously unanswered question.

Wood is typically dismissive of the historical novel even as he admits its attraction–one he doesn’t understand (or pretends not to understand)–to “serious writers,” a collective from which he deems to exclude Mantel. Wood’s rubric seems to be that Mantel is too “commercial” and “traditional” to warrant her inclusion in his club (even as he damns her with faint praise), but I think that his Mitchell review reveals a deep antipathy to anything that seems, y’know, approachable for most readers. That Pynchon leads Wood’s list is telling. Pynchon’s historical fictions range from fantastic and funny (V.Gravity’s Rainbow) to belabored and difficult (Mason & Dixon) to dense and inscrutable (Against the Day). But Pynchon is Pynchon and it’s not fair to exclude Mantel from the “serious writers” club for not being Pynchon (I sometimes think that poor James Wood has just been a book critic too long and hates reading). This is a roundabout way of arguing that, yes, Wolf Hall is serious writing, that it is literary writing, that it transcends its subject matter and comments on the human condition, on soul, on psyche, on spirit. That it happens to entertain at the same time is, of course, why we care. Highly recommended.

The Obligatory Jonathan Franzen Post

So, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is out today. The follow-up to 2001’s The Corrections was already in a second printing before its release today, pretty much pointing to the book being “the literary event” of 2010 (whatever that means). I haven’t read Freedom yet so I don’t have an opinion about it–but it’s hard to not have an opinion about the opinions about Freedom, at least if you follow literary-type news. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, even when they can find something to nitpick or quibble with. Obama picked up a copy last week on vacation. In an act of hyperbole so ridiculous as to turn comical, The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones called it “the novel of the century.” (Nevermind that the century isn’t even a decade old). But it’s probably the fact that Franzen appeared on the cover of Time magazine–the first writer in a decade to do so (the last was Stephen King)–that’s caused some professional jealousy and a backlash against Franzen. Again, this is all before the book has been released.

Yes, Franzenfreude. Authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner felt the need to speak out against coverage of Freedom, crying foul that their books were not receiving the same critical attention as the “white male literary darling.” You can read an interview with the pair here, where their position seems to be that their work, frequently on the bestseller lists, is dismissed as genre fare. I don’t know Weiner’s stuff but Picoult’s novels strike me as the sort of maudlin crap that get turned into Lifetime movies (which they do). Picoult and Weiner don’t just play the gender card though. No, they also whip out a populist argument, the idea that literary critics ought to give more weight to “what people actually read.” In a series of recent columns on the attention Freedom has garnered, Lorin Stein pointed out that “It has become immensely hard to get a “literary” writer the attention he or she deserves.” (The comments section of Stein’s posts showcase a remarkable debate about just what “literary fiction” is).

Stein is absolutely right of course. (Weiner and Picoult will have to console themselves by sobbing into their piles of money). Franzen’s Freedom has become an opportunity for those who love literary fiction–which might be an endangered species–to call attention to the fact that novels are important, that they can somehow diagnose and analyze the spirit of an age. In his article for The Guardian, William Skidelsky strips the rhetoric away and gets to the point–

Underneath the words “Great American Novelist”, Time‘s strapline ran: “He’s not the richest or most famous. His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future. But in his new novel, Jonathan Franzen shows us all the way we live now.” It isn’t hard to unpick the subtext here: “Remember, folks, there’s such a thing as serious literature; it has little to do with Dan Brown or Harry Potter, and these days most of us tend to ignore it, but it’s actually kind of important.”

At The Faster Times, Lincoln Michel is even brassier–

There has always been a segment of the population that does not like it when intelligent artistic work gets praise. These people cry foul when an Academy Award goes to a well-crafted film with limited distribution instead of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, they moan when magazines cover innovative indie musicians instead of the most recent Nickelback CD, and you better believe they can’t stand it when that elitist literary fiction gets awards and coverage that should be reserved for books that people are “actually reading.”

Much of the critical reception of Freedom, then, is more about how the public–the reading public–is to connect with and interact with novels in an age of new media, in an age where some like to pretend the literary novel has lost its relevance, in an age where bozos go around declaring manifestos against novels. While Freedom need not be the novel to “save” the novel, it also shouldn’t be an occasion for backbiting, jealousy, and backlash. Maybe everyone should just calm down and read the damn thing.

[UPDATE: Read our obligatory review of Freedom].